Coping with Intense Emotions in Meditation
Using Mindfulness to Work with Overwhelming Feelings
by Michael W. Taft
In the movie Blade Runner, the replicant Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer, has a problem. As a genetically-enhanced human-like Nexus 6 organism, he’s been given a brilliant mind and a super-human body by the Tyrell Corporation who created him. He is used to do dangerous and difficult work in space and off-world colonies. Yet to keep him and others like him under control, they have built in a four year lifespan limit. He and his replicant friends—Pris, Leon, and Zhora—are programmed to die very soon, and they are not happy about it. In a desperate attempt to extend their lifespan, the four replicants illegally travel to earth, in search of somebody who can help them.
Although Roy is a genius, emotionally he is still like a three year old. The feelings of fear and outrage he is experiencing are enormous, and he cannot deal with them. When he finds the head of the Tyrell Corporation, his creator, he angrily demands “more life, fucker.” When Tyrell makes it clear that there is no possible way to do that, Roy is overcome with anger and frustration and kills the man with his bare hands.
As all his friends are killed, his overwhelming feelings push Roy to do more and more extreme things. Yet at the very end, worn out and dying, Roy comes to some kind of acceptance of his situation, and speaks hauntingly of the beauty he has seen in his short life.
Coping with Intense Emotions
In most mindfulness meditation, the idea is to accept what you’re feeling, and to greet all emotions with curiosity openness, and non-judgment. Even if they are painful and negative, you are supposed to investigate them in detail. Sometimes, however, digging directly into a big, difficult emotion just isn’t possible or desirable—it might be too gnarly to deal with effectively, like Roy Batty’s situation. Rather than meditating on the waves of emotion breaking on the beach of awareness, it’s more like a tsunami of feeling obliterating the beach.
This can happen for a number of reasons. If you have experienced trauma, it’s common for certain situations to trigger overwhelming feelings. If you are under an unusually large amount of stress, say losing a job or a big housing change, it’s possible that your emotions could feel much more difficult to cope with. Another possibility is that you are experiencing chronic anxiety or depression, and connecting with the core of these feelings starts a feedback loop that spirals out of control. Other times you can get overwhelmed because some event, such as a losing a job you’ve had for years, is simply too intense to deal with.
Whatever the cause, emotional overwhelm can feel like it’s going to make you crazy, cut you in half, tear you apart, or even kill you. You might feel like you cannot bear another second of it, and that nothing can relieve it. Emotional overwhelm sucks, and it’s not a good place to hang out.
It can also make you dissociate. Dissociation happens when the feelings are so bad that you just cannot bear to feel your body anymore at all, and you, metaphorically, “leave your body.” That means to lose direct conscious contact with most body sensations. It’s a common response for people who have PTSD. Dissociation feels like spacing out, blanking out, being half in a trance, or slightly on drugs. And in a way that’s exactly what it is. The overwhelm feels so bad that you’re checking out—usually into some mental activity—in order to avoid feeling it.
Hopefully these are not common occurrences in your life, but they do happen to all of us sometime, and it’s important to know how to cope. In all of these cases, meditating directly on the intense feelings of emotion in the body may not be the best course of action. It’s good to connect with your feelings under normal conditions, but wading directly into an enormous flood of emotion that threatens to drown you is not recommended.
There are two basic strategies for working with overwhelming emotions in the body: focus on a neutral spot in the body, or focus on something external.
Focus on a Neutral Spot
Although emotional sensations can arise anywhere in the body, they are much more likely to arise in the belly, chest, throat, or face. These are the emotional hotspots in the body, the regions where emotional sensations can get huge. That means that other areas are much less likely to host gigantic emotional sensations, which turns out to be a useful and convenient thing. You can meditate on those emotionally “cold” spots, such as your hands and feet, and stay in touch with your body. As long as you’re in touch with your body, you won’t be completely dissociated. You’ll be anchored in the sensations, rather than checked out into a dream-like state. And since the emotional sensations in these locations are typically much smaller or nonexistent, you won’t be overwhelmed either.
The easiest practice is to feel your hands, your feet, or both. Concentrate on the emotionally-neutral sensations in these areas. For example, explore the sensations in your palms, the back of your hand, each of your fingers, the spaces between the fingers, and so on. Even your entire arms and legs, if they are not filled with too much emotional sensation. Contact as much of the body as is “safe,” — meaning areas not filled with overwhelming feelings. The thighs and butt can also feel quite neutral and emotionally grounding.
Intense emotions can be seductive, even if they are unpleasant. They are like whirlpools that suck your attention towards them, so avoid allowing yourself to be drawn into the emotional hotspots. Just stay focused on your hands and feet. This is a very effective way to work.
Focus on Something External
When the body is too emotionally hot, it’s often expedient to meditate on something outside the body. External sights and sounds are powerful meditation objects, especially when they are interesting, beautiful, or compelling in some way.
I remember one time when I was going through a terrible relationship breakup. It felt like I had no center, and my guts were just dragging on the ground. The feelings were so large and so negative that I didn’t feel I could deal with them for another second.
I knew that one possibility for working with such intense feelings was focusing away from them. Looking up, I noticed a large cumulous cloud over the nearby mountain. It was stunningly white against the penetrating blue of the sky. It seemed to be a mountain itself, composed of voluminous floating marble. The beauty of it really captured my attention. I began to meditate on it. Staying open and curious and exploring it visually. Every little detail.
Then the horrendous feelings would pull me in again, but I simply accepted that. I didn’t fight it at all. As soon as I could, with a lot of relaxation and openness, I just brought my attention back to the beauty of the cloud. Because I love painting, drawing, and photography, I’d developed an aesthetic eye, I concentrated on the details of color and shape, and that helped in staying focused on the cloud.
That cloud saved me. It gave me something to place my attention on that was safe and pleasant and emotionally neutral. You could do something similar with music, although the caveat is to not use music that is too emotionally stimulating.
I said that there were two techniques, but I’ll toss in an extra one here for free. It’s called pendulation (moving back and forth like a pendulum) and it’s slightly more difficult than the above techniques. It often takes some previous experience of focusing on a neutral spot. If you can do pendulation, however, it’s worth it.
To pendulate, you first locate an emotional-neutral spot in the body and meditate on it for a little while. The next step is the tough one. If you have a huge emotion occurring, but you think you can contact it, or contact somewhere near it, without getting totally overwhelmed, then do that. Contact some part of the huge emotion and meditate on that for a very brief time. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, immediately come back to the neutral spot.
Then you continue to go back and forth (i.e. pendulate) between the neutral spot and the emotional hotspot. You concentrate on only one at a time, giving it your complete attention. Neutral — Hotspot — Neutral — Hotspot… back and forth for the entirety of the meditation.
Going back and forth like this is tremendously integrating. It sort of allows the two different spots in the body to “talk” to each other. Eventually, the emotional hotspot may calm down a bit. It’s important to remember that you’re not trying to make it calm down, or force it to be neutral. You’re practicing acceptance with it. But nevertheless it may sometimes become markedly less intense.
Pendulation is so effective that it’s the core practice of several PTSD treatments. For example, the work of Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine use something comparable (although not exactly the same). Of course, if you have PTSD or other intense traumatic reactions happening, you’ll want to get professional help to work it through.
photo by Ema Panz